They line up in the North Pacific like stock animals waiting to burst into the rodeo arena, heading inexorably west to east. Sometimes they are long crescents of cold air boiling with dynamic forces that sweep over the landscape. Sometimes they are cyclonic gatherings of fierce winds and rains that roll up to the continent's edge like immense atmospheric whirlpools.
In fact, that’s exactly what they are, the Pacific storms that bear down on Vancouver Island in autumn and winter. When they reach the continent’s edge, we’ve learned to take delight in these natural spectacles. Delight is hardly the word, actually: These storms are intrinsic to our character, our landscape and our environment. They represent the most fundamental forces on our planet.
The Northern Hemisphere’s jet stream is what guides the earth’s atmosphere across the Pacific and onto our shores; and the jet stream is a consequence of Earth’s rotation. What more fundamental force could there be than the spinning of our world in the universe? It brings light and dark and rain and wind.
And the vast quantities of water these storms carry in snow- and rain-laden clouds is largely derived from the Pacific itself—largest of all oceans on a planet that is two-thirds covered by saltwater. Since we spend most of our lives ashore, on the one-third of the planet representing dry land, it’s easy to overlook the meaning and sheer scale of this ocean. After all, most of the time we only see the merest thread of it, the verge that grasps our shoreline. And it is the light and warmth of the sun that turns a tiny fraction of that ocean into water vapor. So our rivers, streams and lakes; the massive trees that blanket our Island, the bountiful fields and orchards that provide our food—all these rely on those storm-driven clouds bursting with water that reach our Island. If we ski in winter, catch fish in summer, pick berries in the fall, cherish wildflowers in spring, these are all gifts of the sun, the atmosphere and ocean.
So when we say we enjoy the storms that come our way, we are talking about more than entertainment.
But what entertainment it is!
The most famous venue for experiencing winter storms is the 50-mile stretch of coastline between Ucluelet and Tofino, the twin West Coast towns that hug the outside of the Long Beach Peninsula west of Port Alberni. Both towns have east-facing leeward harbors around which each village grew. And both towns have west-facing (southwest, actually) oceanfronts along which beaches and coves, woodlands and headlands, shoulder into the oncoming weather. Waves ride up the long shores of the coast’s beaches, like immense armies of water laying siege. Big breakers crash into the granite knees of the coast, creating a maelstrom of sound and sight and scent. The wind shakes its way through the sturdy, in-flung branches of ancient Sitka spruce trees; at the very edge of the woods they look like sheep shorn in spring but inland just a few yards they are massive grandfathers of the Island, standing watch as they have for thousands of years.
Once upon a time very few people savoured the sensations of this environment in its storm-time character. Air as fresh and vital as life itself; the most natural sounds one can hear; the way the wind whisks your cheeks like scrub brushes: Hardy residents of the coast gathered gloves and coats and ventured outdoors.
Today, it is a hugely popular travel experience, aided by the many luxurious resorts and cozy lodges that welcome visitors in the months when they used to close. Thousands of travelers venture to Tofino and Ucluelet, and several smaller West Coast hamlets, to walk the beach while waves surge ashore, to clamber cliffs and duck ocean spray, to nudge their way into the spruce woods and discover the wooded fastness where coastal denizens have sheltered for centuries.
Famous lodges stand ready to welcome storm-watchers: The Wickaninnish Inn, Long Beach Lodge, Pacific Sands and Black Rock Resort are all deluxe properties fronting shoreline storm scenes. Firelit rooms, savory suppers and stress-easing spas await guests here. Dozens of smaller inns and guesthouses stand ready, ranging from spruce-shaded cottages to cozy bed-and-breakfasts.
At all of these, few travel experiences are more dynamic than a morning walk on a storm-lashed beach, with a stroll back through the woods to a leisurely lunch of winter’s stew. How can anyone resist a blissful nap after that? That’s what fine wool comforters were made for. The whole experience magnifies our connection with the basics of life in a digital world.
Let’s not overlook the calmer days, too. Even in midwinter, climatic peace sometimes prevails, and you can head out on the beach in a light jacket, park yourself at the high tide line, lean back against a drift log and let the gauzy light of winter’s sun play across your face. Gulls cry in the sky, and mist plays with the water and headlands like calligraphy brushes.
In summer, these shores are crowded with visitors; in winter, one can ride a bike down Chesterman Beach, near Tofino, with hardly a soul nearby.
Though it seems benign, we take an odd pride in the fact that the forces aiming our way each winter create world-class climatic extremes. What may be the largest wave ever recorded by human instruments was registered in the early 20th century off the north end of Vancouver Island by a weather buoy, a 140-foot behemoth headed for Cape Scott. And a weather station at Henderson Lake, inland from Ucluelet, was abandoned after a winter season in which more than 26 feet of rain fell.
These statistics bring us back to the bottom line with these natural spectacles—they represent the primal powers that bear on Island life. So, on our west-facing shores in winter, we happily say, may the force be with you.
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Ski area chairlifts generally rise high above the slopes they traverse, their conveyances (the chairs) hanging 20 feet or more above the snow below. Usually, that is. In a few winters at a few legendary resorts, the snow piles up so high that the lifts are barely above the surface, if at all. And in a few memorable instances, there has been so much snow that resort operators have been forced to clear a path through the snowpack... Just so the chairs could move uphill unimpeded.
One of those spots is right here on Vancouver Island, Mount Washington Resort west of Courtenay. Reaching for the sky into the path of oncoming Pacific winter storms, our mountains peel snow from the atmosphere in torrents. Mount Washington often vies with other Pacific Coast areas for total snowfall title-holder each winter; its record season, 2010-11, brought the ski slopes 1920 centimeters of snow. That’s 63 feet of snow. Figures like that sometimes mean it bears the most snow on Earth.
But there is much more than sheer precipitation volume to the virtues of skiing on our Island. Washington, our major resort, occupies its own pinnacle on the east side of the central Island Range, about halfway up the Island. That means it is easily accessible to all three of our airports (Victoria, Nanaimo and especially Courtenay). It means that the top offers remarkable views of both the main Island range, to the west and north; and of the Strait of Georgia, to the east and south. The location also means that, despite the buckets of snow, the weather is often mild and clear, as it is not directly exposed to the Pacific. Nor is it so high that altitude is a significant factor for the West Coast’s largely sea-level residents.
As well, the resort offers superb beginner and intermediate skiing, with long, leisurely, wide runs that help anyone in the family feel accomplished on the snow. A large village of cafes, shops, restaurants, lodgings, condos and homes at the base affords excellent visitor facilities. And for those who favor Nordic snow pursuits, a vast network of trails reaches from the lower end of the downhill area into Strathcona Provincial Park, providing access to one of the most scenic and extensive cross-country and snowshoeing areas in British Columbia. On a fine day, with sunlight sparking prismatic reflections from the snow and frost dappling the conifers, it is a magical place to set off into winter’s woods, and usually uncrowded enough that you need not share the experience with anyone aside from friends and family.
Big as our Island is, there are naturally many other places to enjoy snow sports. Mount Cain, north of Campbell River about an hour, is a day use area with two lifts, mostly intermediate and advanced slopes, and prodigious amounts of light, powder snow that both pleases and challenges those who seek untracked skiing. Its relatively high base—and very high, for coastal areas, top—helps assure the quality of the snow, as does the fact skiing takes place weekends only, plus a few Mondays and holidays. Thus the snow piles up, undisturbed, for three or four days each week, before skiers attack the slopes on Saturday mornings. Its vertical drop of almost 1,500 feet is huge for a part-time day-use area.
Scattered around the Island, from the very south end all the way north to Port Hardy, are community networks of winter trails open to cross-country skiers, snowshoers and (often on separate trails) snowmobiles. Although conditions can sometimes be marginal at lower elevations, December and January often bring good weather for snow play. Visitor bureaus in major towns and cities can provided up-to-date information about conditions.
And, of course, there is sometimes nothing better than a simple walk in a snowy wood. That’s available throughout the winter in almost every corner of the Island, and one need nothing more than warm clothes and snow-worthy boots to turn a walk into a winter sport. Savor the clean air and the fir and spruce scents; keep your eyes and ears open for winter’s woodland residents, the squirrels and chickadees, chipmunks and juncos, ravens and rodents that live here; stretch your legs on a soft pavement made by the sky above. It’s a far cry from the glistening thrill of a downhill run from the top of Mount Washington, but every day outdoors has its own virtue on our Island of life.
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